On average, pupils in small towns had better educational attainment than in larger towns and cities. This is based on analysis of the educational attainment of state school students who sat their GCSEs in the 2012 to 2013 school year. We have focused on this cohort, as they are the most recent pupils for whom data exists on their progress after school, up to age 22 years.
The level of income deprivation and the education of the previous generation in a town also related to how well students in our cohort did in school. This was reflected in their choices after age 16 years.
In this article, we compare the educational attainment in towns using data from our cohort, such as their:
- attainment at primary school level (Key Stage 2) in school year 2007 to 2008
- attainment at GSCE level in school year 2012 to 2013
- qualifications attained by age 18 years (school year 2014 to 2015)
- qualifications attained by age 22 years (school year 2018 to 2019)
This is the first time much of these data have been compiled at town-level. We have set out some of the main findings and will be continuing to explore this topic in future articles. You can also explore how your nearest town compares with others in our interactive tool.
This analysis forms part of a wider body of work the ONS is doing to understand life in English towns.
We have followed a cohort of pupils who sat their GCSEs in the 2012 to 2013 school year, using a dataset called Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) collected by the Department for Education (DfE). This is because they are the youngest year group whose progress up to age 22 years is recorded in the dataset we have used for this analysis.
When looking at education outcomes in different towns, we have used the town the young person lived in when they sat their GCSEs. Data on an individual’s attainment in later years is then related back to the town they lived in during their GCSEs, even if they moved away afterwards. This is because we want to understand the relationship between long-term educational attainment and the town where a young person grows up.
Smaller towns had better educational attainment, on average, than medium or large towns, or cities.
Smaller towns are also the most common town type, although only 14% of our cohort lived in one (24% lived in medium-sized towns, 20% in large towns, and 13% in cities not including London).
To compare towns by a range of different measures, we have used a score that summarises the educational attainment of young people at different points throughout their education. A score of 0 is the average score of all areas, while negative scores reflect poorer than average performance, and positive scores mean better than average attainment.
Overall, small towns had an average score of 0.4. Scores decreased by size: medium towns had a score of negative 0.3 and large towns had a score of negative 0.9.
Smaller towns have the highest average educational attainment
Educational attainment score, by town size, England
While smaller towns have a better average score, they also see the widest range in scores.
Thurnscoe in South Yorkshire had a score of negative 10.0, while Chorleywood in Hertfordshire had a score of positive 9.4. Just 36% of pupils in Thurnscoe achieved five A* to C grade GCSEs including English and Maths in school year 2012 to 2013, while 87% did in Chorleywood.
We have also included cities in this analysis, as a comparison. On average, cities outside of London scored lower than towns of all sizes, with only one city (Brighton and Hove) seeing a score higher than 0.
However, both Inner and Outer London areas had scores higher than average. This trend has been explored previously by the Department for Education. Read more in their Examining the London advantage in attainment research.
Differences in incomes are part of the reason that smaller towns see better outcomes than larger towns. Towns with higher levels of income deprivation scored much lower on average (negative 2.4) than towns with low levels of income deprivation (positive 2.8).
Previous research from the Department for Education has shown similar results, with disadvantaged pupils' attainment falling behind others.
Smaller towns in England are far less likely to be classed as highly income deprived than larger towns.
Nearly 7 in 10 (69%) large towns have higher levels of income deprivation, compared with half of medium-sized towns (48%) and around one-third (32%) of small towns. Every city in our deprivation analysis (which did not include London) was also classed as having higher levels of income deprivation.
Small towns are less likely to be classed as having high income deprivation
Income deprivation group by town size, England
When we talk about levels of income deprivation, we mean the proportion of residents in an area who experience deprivation related to low income – this could mean being out-of-work or working but taking home a low wage. This is part of the government’s Indices of Multiple Deprivation.
When we look at the 10% of towns with the highest educational attainment scores, none have high levels of income deprivation.
Among towns with lower attainment scores, there is a wider range of deprivation levels, although higher levels of deprivation are still more common.
Smaller towns have a higher average attainment score, partly because a larger share of these towns have low levels of income deprivation.
However, when we look just at towns with high levels of income deprivation, small towns are just as likely as medium or large towns to have a lower-than-average educational attainment score.
Towns with the highest educational attainment have low levels of income deprivation
Educational attainment score of the 2012 to 2013 school year GCSE cohort, and income deprivation score, by town, England
While higher deprivation towns tend to see worse education outcomes, the extent to which we see this relationship differs in different regions.
For example, towns with high levels of income deprivation have an average attainment score of negative 2.4. However, this falls to negative 3.5 in the South East, and rises to negative 1.3 in the North West.
Ashton-in-Makerfield in the North West is among the highest scoring towns with high levels of deprivation, with a score of positive 3.1. None of the top 20 scoring high deprivation towns are in the South East.
The North West also sees the highest average score among towns with low deprivation (5.0). Meanwhile, towns with low levels of deprivation in the South West scored just 1.0. While this is a positive score, it is low compared with the average for towns with low levels of deprivation in other regions of England.
For example, Yate, a medium-sized town in the South West with low levels of deprivation, scores negative 2.5. None of the 20 lowest-scoring towns with low levels of deprivation were in the North West.
Towns in the North West have the highest attainment scores at all income deprivation levels
Average educational attainment score for towns, by region and income deprivation level, England
Overall, coastal towns also have lower attainment scores (negative 1.9) than non-coastal towns (positive 0.3). Coastal towns had low attainment irrespective of the size of town, while the differences between seaside towns and other-coastal towns were relatively small.
We have examined other issues facing coastal towns, including employment, deprivation and population, in our Coastal towns in England and Wales publication.
Coastal and seaside towns have lower attainment scores on average than other towns
Educational attainment scores for coastal and non-coastal towns, by size, England
When we look at differences in young people's attainment for towns with higher levels of deprivation compared with towns with lower levels of deprivation, towns with lower deprivation generally do better.
However, the differences between these groups of towns get wider the further through the school system we look.
We compared pupils’ attainment at the end of primary school, at age 11 years (Key Stage 2) in the 2007 to 2008 school year. The average attainment across high deprivation towns was 9 percentage points lower than the average attainment across low deprivation towns.
We use the 2007 to 2008 school year, as this is the year that our GCSE cohort would have finished primary school, although not all pupils will have sat both assessments in the same town.
When we compare attainment of students achieving five A* to C grade GCSEs, including English and Maths, this gap rises to 11 percentage points.
When looking at young people aged 18 years who gained two or more A levels or equivalent, the gap between those in towns with high income deprivation and low income deprivation widens further, to 15 percentage points.
This may affect the paths young people take after school. By age 19 years, 82% of our cohort living in towns with low levels of deprivation were classed as being in “sustained activity”, which means they were either working and earning at least £10,000 per year, or in further education or higher education. For those living in towns with higher levels of deprivation, this fell to 73%.
The gap in educational attainment gets wider as young people progress through education
Percentage point difference in the proportion of young people meeting specific attainment measures at age 11, 16 and 18 years, by town income deprivation groupings, England
There was little difference in the average percentage of young people who entered higher education between towns of different sizes. A third (33%) of young people in our cohort from small and medium sized towns went to higher education on average, compared with 34% from large towns.
In cities (outside of London), attainment by age 18 years was lower than in small, medium and large towns, with a smaller proportion of students holding two A levels or equivalent qualifications. Despite this, attendance at higher education was similar for pupils in cities and towns.
This could reflect easier access to university and other further education opportunities, with pupils in cities perhaps less likely to face the financial burden of moving away from home to study. This may also partially explain why pupils from Inner London were the most likely to go on to higher education.
Cities (outside London) have lower average attainment at age 18 than towns, but similar levels of enrolment in higher education
Proportion of the 2012 to 2013 GCSE cohort achieving Level 3 qualification at age 18, participating in further education or higher education at age 19, by towns and cities groupings, England
Instead of (or as well as) continuing education post 18, many young people enter employment. By age 19 years, around one-quarter of our cohort from small and medium towns were earning more than £10,000 (25% and 24%, respectively) per annum. In large towns, this reduced slightly to 22%, and in cities outside of London it was 18%.
The percentage of our cohort claiming out-of-work benefits at age 19 years was 6% in Outer London and 7% in Inner London. This is compared with around 1 in 10 in other cities (12%). Amongst towns, small towns on average had slightly better outcomes in this regard, with 8% out of work at age 19 years, compared with 9% in medium-and large towns.
Students in our cohort were much more likely to perform well in education if other residents in the town (aged 35 to 64 years) also had higher levels of education.
Young people tend to have better attainment in towns where a high proportion of residents in the previous generation have some form of higher education
Percentage of residents aged 35 to 64 years with at least level 4 qualifications in 2011, and educational attainment score of the 2012 to 2013 school year GCSE cohort, by town, England
- Qualifications equivalent to Level 4 or higher are given in our census Education topic summary
We grouped towns into a high, medium or low category, based on the percentage of residents aged 35 to 64 years, who had at least level 4 qualifications (post age 18 years qualifications such as higher apprenticeships or higher national certificates) in the 2011 census. This is an indicator of the education level of the previous generation living in the town where our cohort went to school.
In towns where the previous generation’s education level was classed as “high”, the average attainment score was positive 5.4. This is compared with negative 2.3 in areas where there were low levels of residents with some form of higher education.
The relationship between educational attainment and the qualification levels of the wider community is seen at all levels of education. In areas where residents aged 35 to 64 years had high education levels, 75% of our cohort had five A* to C grade GCSEs including English and Maths at age 16 years, and 66% had two A levels or equivalent by age 18 years.
In areas where the previous generation’s education level was classed as “low”, just over half of our cohort (56%) had five A* to C grade GCSEs with English and Maths at age 16 years, and 42% had two A levels or equivalent at age 18 years.
In areas where a high percentage of residents had a form of higher education, 43% of our cohort had gained a qualification of degree level or equivalent by the age of 22 years. This reduced to 32% in towns where the previous generation’s education level was classed as “medium”, and to 24% in towns where older residents’ education level was classed as “low”.
The routes young people took after compulsory education may have been partly influenced by the experiences and education levels of the adults in their local community. Pupils who lived in towns where lots of adults had higher education levels saw better education outcomes throughout school. They may also have had better access to advice about how to pursue further and higher education themselves.
A person’s highest qualification level may also play a role in where they choose to live, study and work. We will be publishing further analysis on the movements of young people with different qualification levels, to understand more about English towns’ ability to keep and attract highly skilled and qualified individuals.
The Education Index Score
We created an index score to compare educational attainment in towns across several different metrics. The variables that contributed to this score were:
- the percentage of pupils with expected levels of English and Maths at age 11 years (Key Stage 2)
- the percentage of pupils with five A* to C grade GCSEs including English and Maths at age 16 years (Key Stage 4)
- the percentage of our cohort with two A levels or equivalent qualifications at age 18 years (Level 3)
- the highest level of qualification attained by our cohort at age 22 years
We used a score to reflect the highest level of qualification gained by our cohort by age 22 years. This score was calculated by assigning a point for every level of education attained by each individual, and then calculating the average for each town. Read more about what the different qualification levels mean.
All variables were weighted equally, with an average score assigned for each town or other geography.
Pupils’ attainment was tracked on an individual level from Key Stage 4. For Key Stage 2 attainment, scores were taken from students who sat those assessments in each town, but as some pupils will have moved between sitting Key Stage 2 assessments and Key Stage 4 assessments, these two results will not contain the same group of pupils. We estimate that less than 8% of our cohort lived in a different town in Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 4.
We linked our cohort’s attainment scores at all levels to the towns they lived in when they sat their GCSEs. This was to explore how the town a person lived in during compulsory school years affected their education into the future.
Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO)
This analysis focused on a particular cohort of 568,308 individuals who sat their GCSEs in the 2012 to 2013 school year. Data were collected from The Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO), a major database constructed by the Department for Education (DfE).
It links administrative education data from Early Years through to Higher Education from DfE and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) with employment, benefits and earnings data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). It does not include students who were home schooled. Earnings data also do not reflect “cash in hand” earnings.
To be included in the LEO database with school level education and outcomes data, individuals must have been in the English school education system for a least one school year.